“No home secretary wants to go down in history as the man who legalized buggery.” – Hector
Last night’s episode of “The Hour” featured a roundtable discussion of The Wolfenden Report, a government-sponsored, 155-page review of homosexual offences and prostitution in Britain. The first 5,000 copies of the report sold out within hours of publication, in part due to the committee’s salacious and shocking recommendation that homosexual acts between consenting adults should no longer be a criminal offence. “Adultery, fornication, lesbianism – all are considered sins, but not crimes,” says Bel, pointing out the double standard. “Male homosexuality, on the other hand, is treated as both a sin and a crime and will continue to be prosecuted under the criminal law, against the advice of the Wolfenden Committee. As discussed, it falls to us to ask, ‘Why?’”
In September of 1954, the Wolfenden committee – a group of 12 men and three women headed by John Wolfenden – assembled to investigate laws on homosexuality and prostitution. Under the current law, male homosexual offenses could incur anything from a 5-pound fine to life imprisonment – and at the time the committee convened, over 1,000 men were jailed for homosexual acts. After three years of deliberation, the committee released their findings, recommending that homosexuality be decriminalized, and refuting homosexuality as a disease. The committee ruled that it was not the government’s place to intervene in the private lives and personal moralities of homosexual British citizens.
What took Wolfenden and his committee three years to compile took Parliament a mere afternoon to dismiss – the findings had little direct impact on British law, or public sentiment, towards homosexuals. As Wolfenden recalled later in his personal memoirs “Turning Points,” “The sapient Permanent Secretary at the Home Office said to me, when he had read the draft of our report, ‘Don’t expect legislation quickly. In a thing like this, where deep emotions are likely to be aroused, I would guess fourteen years as the average time-lag between recommendations and legislation.’” The controversial recommendations were, in fact, shelved for ten years before they were finally implemented, due in part to an emerging public tolerance of homosexuals in the mid to late-60s. “Why should any government go out of its way to lose votes by quixotically championing an unpopular minority?” Wolfenden reflected in his memoirs. Whether the law should lead or follow public opinion he couldn’t say, but admitted, “Far better to wait a year or two and act with public opinion behind you than to leap in and find yourself out of tune with it.”
The recommendations in the Wolfenden Report were officially passed into law with the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, permitting homosexuality in private between two consenting men over 21-years-old.